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Law put gun back into hands of man who killed trooper

| Sunday, Jan. 24, 2010

When a Venango County judge returned a rifle to a man who completed probation on a stalking charge more than a decade ago, state law contained no restrictions to prevent it.

Pennsylvania State Police officials last week said they intended to investigate why then-President Judge H. William White ordered a .30-.30 rifle returned to Michael Smith in November 2000.

Smith used that rifle to fatally shoot Trooper Paul Richey, who responded to a domestic violence call at Smith's Venango County home Jan. 13. Smith killed his wife and himself, police said.

It wasn't until a 2005 amendment to House Bill 1717 that it became illegal for someone convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence to own a firearm, as well as those who are the subject of active protection-from-abuse orders.

Smith's 1997 arrest and conviction on misdemeanor charges of stalking his wife and threatening responding police officers resulted in court officials seizing his gun, but did not preclude the judge from returning the weapon after Smith completed three years of probation. White could not be reached for comment.

Federal laws governing gun seizure would not have applied because Smith was convicted of a state crime. Pennsylvania lawmakers did not enact a stalking statute, Act 218, until 2002, officials said.

"Unfortunately, the stage for this tragedy was set, because the system and the laws weren't in place to prevent it, and now everyone is wringing their hands and asking why," said Kim Stolfer, chairman of Pennsylvania's gun-rights group Firearms Owners Against Crime.

"From a constitutional standpoint, once you pay your debt to society and as long as you haven't been convicted of certain crimes, your gun rights should be restored," Stolfer said. "But you aren't going to find a lot of sympathy for those individuals who have been convicted of domestic violence or stalking."

At the time of Smith's arrest, his wife and her mother obtained PFA orders against him, which his wife asked a judge to discontinue three months later.

The 2005 amendment, called Act 66, extended the maximum time a victim can be granted a PFA to three years, from a previous maximum of 18 months, said state Rep. Katie True, R-Lancaster, who sponsored the bill.

"These prohibitions and amendments have been racheted up over the years to include broader categories of who cannot possess a firearm and why," said Bruce Antkowiak, professor at Duquesne University School of Law.

Gary Tuma, spokesman for Gov. Ed Rendell, said a person convicted of a domestic violence crime can petition the court for relief to have any seized firearms returned, but it's not known how many of those applications are declined or granted each year.

The Act 66 amendment specified that when a judge grants a PFA, the judge must order any firearms seized -- whether they have been used or threatened against the person petitioning for protection, Tuma said.

Allegheny County Sheriff Bill Mullen said his office seizes all weapons subject to PFA orders and handles all applications for permits to carry concealed weapons.

Seized guns are stored in a repository in the courthouse, Mullen said, until a judge orders the weapons either returned to a defendant or destroyed.

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